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Dr. Joe Writes About Quackery

Not long ago I wrote about the free online “Food for Thought” course. Joe Schwarcz (“Dr. Joe”) was one of the three professors teaching that course. He also has a radio show, a blog, a podcast, and he writes books. His newest book will be of particular interest to SBM readers: Is That a Fact? Frauds, Quacks, and the Real Science of Everyday Life.

dr-hoe-is-that-a-fact

I reviewed an earlier book of his, The Right Chemistry, for Skeptic magazine. You can read my review online here. I called him “The Carl Sagan of Chemistry” for his ability to popularize science and make it not only palatable but fascinating and entertaining. In the new book, Dr. Joe turns his attention to exactly the kind of subjects we cover on this blog. He is a chemist and most of us are physicians, but we reach the same conclusions because we look at the evidence from the same rigorous scientific viewpoint.

In The Right Chemistry, Dr. Joe explains that “chemical” does not mean “bad stuff” — chemicals make up the entire world, and we are made of chemicals that our own body manufactures. He shares his encyclopedic store of obscure and intriguing scientific facts. Have you ever heard of kangatarians? Did you know asparagus can grow up to 10 inches a day? Can you explain why crystals of Epsom salts crumble if you yell at them? Do you think explosives can’t be made on a plane with small amounts of liquids? (Dr. Joe thinks they can, but for obvious reasons he’s not divulging the recipe.) You probably didn’t know that in World War II the U.S. military developed a mixture called “Who Me?” that smelled like feces and was dispensed with an atomizer. French Resistance fighters were supposed to surreptitiously spray it on German officers to embarrass them, but it wasn’t a great success since the sprayer ended up as stinky as the sprayee.

Is That a Fact? starts by asking how we know what we know. Scientific knowledge depends on ever-accumulating evidence, and we have different degrees of certainty about different topics. Schwarcz conveniently divides his book into black, gray and white sections: white entries are factual, grays are a blend of fact and falsehood, and black are “pretty dismal” when it comes to facts.

Black

Starting with an overview of quackery, he goes on to recount his personal encounter with an intuitive healer who told him she could “see” that his body was infested with worms, bacteria, mushrooms and viruses. He goes on to discuss bogus cancer cures, colon cleansing, pokeweed, vinegar, how to diagnose pathological science, double helix water, homeopathy, fakery, Braco the Gazer (who makes millions just standing on stage and gazing at the audience), celebrity endorsements, rhino horn, HCG diets, and other topics. Each is presented in a short segment of 4 or 5 pages.

Gray

In this section he covers claims that go beyond the evidence and he critiques the studies the claims are based on. Topics include fish oil supplements, blueberries and other fruit claims, leeches, toxic chemicals, healthy diets, weight loss, tropical oils, antioxidants, the supplement industry, pesticides, deer antlers, Dr. Oz, breatharians and nutritarians, pink slime, colloidal silver, salt therapy, water scams, buckeyballs, and foods made from genetically modified organisms (GMO).

White

Here he covers the chemical bogeymen BPA and PVC and why he’s not worried about them, static electricity, laboratory accidents, formaldehyde to prevent clothes from wrinkling, meat production, dry ice, mirrors, hormones that make you cuddle, neoprene, the Olympic torch, non-browning apples, orange juice, opiates, nitrous oxide, antibiotics, gluten, geysers, kiwis (both the bird and the fruit), duels by Calabar bean, superfruits, mesmerism, energy medicine, and the power of belief.

Resomation [not a typo]

In a short final chapter, he explains how resomation works: dissolving the body into its chemical components by acid hydrolysis. He compares it to other ways of disposing of our body’s chemical ingredients after death.

Conclusion

This book is not only informative but is a delight to read. Throughout, Dr. Joe interweaves chemistry with medicine, critical thinking, and the scientific method. His explanations are simple and lucid. He has a way with words, and the book is filled with funny comments like “Dr. Oz puts his facts on a diet when it comes to fattening up his television ratings.”

It’s available in inexpensive paperback and Kindle editions. If you don’t want to spend your hard-earned money, you could ask your local library to purchase it, or you can get a free sample of Dr. Joe’s wit and wisdom at these websites:

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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58 thoughts on “Dr. Joe Writes About Quackery

  1. Susan Vaitekunas says:

    He is also a fantastic and entertaining speaker. We have had him give the final presentation at several CME events to prevent the empty hall phenomenon .

  2. mouse says:

    I’d be interested in hearing what he has to say about PVC. I know that a number of people are convinced of the dangers of plastic products, refusing to use them even in their fridge. On the other hand, I know a number artists/crafters who tend to use plastics with reckless disregard for safety. Melting, cutting and sanding plexiglass or other plastics (acrylic beads, plastic bags, plastic toys) without a face mask or appropriate ventilation or any regard for fumes or dust (okay, I’ve done that, stupid, I guess). I tend to get more annoyed with the folks who are under cautions rather than those who are over cautious (yes that includes myself).

    1. stanmrak says:

      Typical head-in-the-sand pseudoscientist who makes up his mind first, then collects only the evidence that supports his already-held beliefs. You won’t find much ‘truth’ in his writing.

      1. Windriven says:

        Better to have his head in the sand than his head up his a$$ like certain marketing types who lurk in these pages.

    2. Windriven says:

      @mouse

      PVC is ubiquitous because of its many fine properties not least of which is that it is relatively inexpensive. The IV tubing that hospitals use, the water pipes in your house, the air mattress you lay on in the swimming pool are all made of PVC. The polymer itself is stable at normal temperatures but releases dangerous gases when overheated or burned.

      Much of the concern with PVC involves the plasticizers used to make it soft. Many of these belong to a group of oily chemicals called phthalates and one, DEHP – di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate – can be toxic, especially to the very young. DEHP is still widely used in products like flooring materials. FDA compliant medical products and most toys do not use DEHP plasticizers. They use either di-isononyl phthalate (DINP), widely accepted as safe, a citrate plasticizer, or one of the new generation castor bean oil plasticizers.

      Melting, cutting, grinding, sanding, or burning any plastic should never be undertaken without a face mask or respirator and adequate ventilation. Particles can be very long lived irritants in the respiratory tract (think asbestos fibers) and fumes can be profoundly toxic.

      1. mouse says:

        Thanks Windriven – I will renew my resolution to be much more careful about wearing my particle mask when I occasionally need to sand or cut plexiglass as well as cleaning very well afterwards. Also I won’t be doing any heating or melting. One has to be very careful cutting, if the blade is moving too fast it can melt the plastic rather than cut it.

        Many of my indiscretions were before it actually occurred to me that these activities might be a problem, When it did, I looked it up and realized. whoops, maybe not good. But the explanations online are always so technical (meant for manufacturing, often) it’s hard to know how much a problem any particular activity actually is.

        Unfortunately my asthma seems to be irritated by wearing a particle mask for any length of time (I think it’s the trapped humidity). It’s always a temptation to just cut corners….but not worth it, I’m sure.

        A friend that was in a workshop I taught last month told me a story about another mixed media workshop she took where the instructor had the class melting plastic shopping bags. It creates cool effects. This was in a enclosed classroom, no windows, no ventilation and one of the students had COPD. (Many arts workshops have a high percentage of retirees students, so COPD or other physical issues are not a huge surprise.)

        On a more general level, I guess this mean heating your leftovers in the plastic tupperware really isn’t a good idea. I never knew if that was alarmist or the real thing.

        1. mouse says:

          Oh look, Harriet Hall mentions not using plastic tupperware to heat food in the microwave today.

    3. stanmrak says:

      You can bet that there’s never been a study on the long-term exposure to PVC and health problems. They only do enough safety studies to please the FDA and then everyone assumes it’s safe. One only has to look around at the myriad number of novel diseases we have today to wonder if something is up.

      1. Windriven says:

        “You can bet that there’s never been a study on the long-term exposure to PVC and health problems. ”

        You’re right. There have been at least 1832 of them reported on Pubmed alone. Go to pubmed and searh ‘phthalate toxicity.’ Why do you think the plastics industry abandoned a widely used and wildly profitable plasticizer? Do you think it is because of some squirrel whining on the internet? Serious people with a serious interest in the health and well being of their fellows do serious research to improve the human condition. I’d tell you to get serious stan, but you wouldn’t know how.

  3. Eugenie Mielczarek says:

    Harriet, serendipitously your post on Dr. Joe’s educational efforts stands in strong contrast to today’s article in the Washington Post’s Health and Science Section which features a full page uncritical description of nine alternative medicine treatments by Laura Newcomer. Some quotes “Homeopathy functions in much the same way as a vaccination”, Ayurvedic medicine “”balancing mind body and spirit to promote overall wellness”, Reiki,” “transfer life energy to the client” to “promote speed healing” . Acupuncture , Baineotherapy, Naturopathy, Aromatherapy , etc etc. Apparently she is uninformed about clinical trials, and shows no evidence of being familiar with the medical literature. A sad comment on the editorial intelligence of a major news paper. Eugenie Mielczarek

  4. quietsunshine says:

    I was fortunate to grow up in Montreal, so I got to hear him speak as a kid and also on his radio show. He is a great asset to our planet!

    1. Frederick says:

      Excellent Review,Seems like a good book! I might get both of them

      Turn out I know the guy, when My town ( Trois-Rivières, in quebec) was about to fluoride water, I was looking a good blogs ( SBM is great but i wanted more sources) and articles to debunked junk argument from anti-fluorides. I found the Mcgill Blog, A good one. I probably get his book, I hope there is french version, because those subject are a lot harder to read when it is not in you home language. Thanks Dr. Hall

      Braco the Gazer (who makes millions just standing on stage and gazing at the audience)
      What? seriously? Why I didn’t think of that myself! I would be rich by now! I could do the same, but by speaking loudly to people! ( yeah I’m a load speaker).
      Seriously I never heard of that guy before, I thought that I had seen the worst Woo ever with Quantum Man… seems there’s is always peoples able to go further down the spiral of non sense. ( anyone got the NIN reference? :-) )

  5. qetzal says:

    Sounds like a great book, but I have to ask: does he really cover breatharians in the gray section?! I’d say that’s probably the most fundamentally impossible claim in the whole list! Blacker than homeopathy, even!

  6. Harriet Hall says:

    “does he really cover breatharians in the gray section”

    Yes, but only to use them for contrast. The section is on “Breatharians and Nutritarians” and he points out that one represents the extent of human folly and the other is a rational attempt to improve health. Then he explains that Joel Fuhrman’s “nutritarian” diet, while far healthier and more reality-based than breatharianism, is “a little over the top” and too optimistic about the ability of nutrient dense foods to prevent and cure many diseases.

    1. qetzal says:

      Thanks! That makes me feel better.

    2. TBruce says:

      Joel Fuhrman, from Men’s Journal, October 2012:

      Viruses, Fuhrman says, are relatively harmless in a healthy person; a bug that kills one person might not even cause symptoms in a committed nutritarian. Because Americans are hooked on immunity-depressing “fast food and sugar and junk,” we aren’t prepared for the kind of viral pandemic such as the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide. “Some sort of swine flu/bird flu hybrid could kill 20 percent of our population,” Fuhrman says. As for the annual flu shot, “it isn’t effective at all – it doesn’t work!” He’s also skeptical about the number of vaccines the average American child receives. “There’s no chance of anyone getting polio in this country,” he says.

      Joel Fuhrman is an idiot.

      1. Windriven says:

        “Viruses, Fuhrman says, are relatively harmless in a healthy person”

        HPV and the cervical cancers that it can cause come to mind. I’ve no idea how many women died of cervical cancer in the 20th century alone. I wonder if Dr. Joel would be so sanguine if it caused terminal cancer of the dick?

        And then there’s HIV, polio, and smallpox to name a 20th century trifecta.

        You’re right. Joel Fuhrman is an idiot. A board certified, medical doctor, idiot. ABFM can’t man up like the NBA and tell Fuhrman he’s too much of an embarrassment to enjoy the privilege of board certification? Guys whose business model is tall black men in short pants playing with a round ball have a more acute sense of ethics than the American Board of Family Medicine? Go figure.

        1. Heather says:

          “Guys whose business model is tall black men in short pants playing with a round ball have a more acute sense of ethics than the American Board of Family Medicine?”
          Bless you for that comment!
          I doubt it’s a sense of ethics; I suspect it’s more like, sense of income. That’s the real reason the NBA acted so quickly and harshly with Sterling – because his (private) remarks, once published, threatened everyone’s livelihood, not just his own. See how they and the NAACP handled Sterling’s obvious racial bias in his management of his rental properties. Oh wait – there’s nothing to see, because neither organization saw any reason to speak out.

          1. Windriven says:

            ” Oh wait – there’s nothing to see, because neither organization saw any reason to speak out.”

            We’ve come a long way in this country. I rode a motorcycle down from Ohio to the Gulf Coast in the late 70s and there was a sign outside Saraland, AL (I think it was) that said, “N….r, don’t let the sundown catch you here.” And while the restrictions were no longer enforced there were still three bathrooms in some stores and shops: men, women, and colored. That was one hell of a wakeup call for a middle class white kid for whom racism was a misty historical embarrassment.

            But despite how far we’ve come there are – and may always be – those who can’t feel kinship with those whose skin is different or who believe different fantasies or who come from different socio-economic circumstances.

            It isn’t their bigotry that really matters, it is the silence of others that gives that bigotry a place to hide that matters. Attitudes like that wither in the bright light of exposure.

      2. CHotel says:

        “There’s no chance of anyone getting polio in this country,” he says.

        Gee golly, I wonder why THAT is.

  7. MTDoc says:

    Anyone interested in water scams will find the following link informative and helpful in explaining the facts to those who care to learn the truth. Of course, if you still want to spend thousands of dollars on a machine which “ionizes water” I know someone who can get it for you wholesale. And you can get a foot massage at the same time. The link is http://www.chem1.com.

  8. Holy says:

    I’m just your average stay-at-home mom layperson. But I checked out the recommendation to take the “Food for Thought” course. I went ahead and took the course and really enjoyed it! Joe was very entertaining and I’m thinking about reading some of his books. (In between the diaper changes, school work, feedings, etc. with little ones.) As a mother who is just trying to do my best to take care of her family’s health with my limited education I appreciate resources that make science fun and understandable.

  9. Sounds like a fine and interesting book, but I have to take issue with what appears to be an unthinking assignment of white = good and black = bad.

    Visually, it is easier to think of black as good in this case (black = full of facts) while white is bad (empty of facts). So I wonder how he assigned the colors?

    We are affected by the metaphors we use. A good book on this is Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

    (Note that I have not read Dr. Joe’s book and so don’t know if he explains his reasoning in choosing his color assignment. If he does, perhaps Dr. Hall can let us know.)

    1. Jamie Gegerson says:

      Not having read the book (yet,) but seeing some evidence of the author’s rational mind in the review, I’d guess a more appropriate metaphor rather than the good or bad one you suggest is sitting in a room with the lights on or off.

      Your assumption is a perfectly good example of political correctness taken to an inappropriate extreme.

    2. Max says:

      You’re thinking of black text on white paper. He’s thinking of light vs. darkness, as in Enlightenment vs. the Dark Ages.

  10. goodnightirene says:

    I just ordered three for the grandkid’s Nooks, and a paperback for myself (easier to share). Subscribed to podcast as well. Can’t believe I didn’t know about Dr Joe, so thanks for sharing!

  11. Max says:

    Speaking of chemical bogeymen, did everyone watch the Cosmos episode about Clair Patterson’s campaign against lead additives?

    From Wikipedia: “Following his criticism of the lead industry he was refused contracts with many research organizations, including the supposedly neutral United States Public Health Service. In 1971 he was excluded from a National Research Council panel on atmospheric lead contamination, which was odd considering he was the foremost expert on the subject at that time…
    In 1978 he was appointed to an NRC panel which accepted the need for reductions but argued the need for more research. His opinions were expressed in a 78-page minority report which argued that control measures should start immediately, including gasoline, food containers, paint, glazes and water distribution systems. Thirty years later, most of these have been accepted and implemented in the United States and many other parts of the world.”

  12. Max says:

    Continuing…
    “Perhaps partly because he was criticizing the experimental methods of other scientists, he encountered strong opposition from recognized experts such as Robert A. Kehoe. In his effort to ensure that lead was removed from gasoline, Patterson fought against the lobbying power of the Ethyl Corporation (which employed Kehoe), against the legacy of Thomas Midgley, a key figure in a team of chemists, led by Charles F. Kettering, that developed the tetraethyllead (TEL) additive to gasoline as well as some of the first chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Over the course of his career, Midgley was granted over a hundred patents. While he was lauded for his scientific contributions during his lifetime, the negative environmental impact of some of his innovations have considerably tarnished his legacy. J. R. McNeill, an environmental historian, has remarked that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”

    1. Frederick says:

      Yes I did see it, Cosmo it a great series.I like how that man was looking for the age of the earth, end up discovering massive pollution.

  13. Filosoph says:

    Questions?

    Presupposition – if there are 4 quadrants

    1. You Know You Know
    2. You Know You Don’t Know
    3. You Don’t Know You Know
    4. You Don’t Know You Don’t Know

    When you argue – based on the paradigm of the moment. When, possibly, your suppositions and claimed objectivity may lay within quadrant 4 above. How does science i.e. the methodology of relevance and validity serve you then?

    How do you espouse support or condemnation inside Quadrant 4 above? And if you don’t know that you don’t know how can you even remotely argue in that sphere.

    Eg. The optic spectrum exists let’s suppose it’s from around 700nm – 400nm.. What is before 700nm and what is after 400nm? The waves possibly go in either direction infinitely, right?

    I had hoped to find legitimate argument on this site but so far I have found more of an egotistical point scoring and arguing from a position vis a vis another position and often confined to dichotomous thinking with a albeit benign approach to holistic thinking.

    I had hoped people of science may have been able to step beyond their paradigm of thought may be too much to ask humans who have studied a particular field and then love to add letters after their names as if that would mean something in particular. Authority?? Seems to me to be a limiting version of the methodology of relevance and validity

    Truth…… might not be Truth rather a load of BS… (Belief System)

    Filosoph , PhD ( Pragmatic Human Development)

    (I trust you understand and accept the “medical convention” of the 30 year rule i.e. it takes about 30 years of PROOF before the medical community accepts what was fact 30 years ago but can’t tolerate the fact that they were inherently wrong for 30 yeas instead hide behind the paradigm of the moment albeit incredulously)

    1. Windriven says:

      My but you’re a bag of gas, aren’t you?

      It is clear that you haven’t the remotest understanding of epistemology. So I’ll take this slowly.

      You ask: “How do you espouse support or condemnation inside Quadrant 4 above?”

      We don’t espouse support for that which we don’t know that we don’t know. That is the job of religion. For those who claim that they do know what we don’t know, we simply ask for proof. If you claim that you can turn lead into gold, we simply ask that you prove it. That is the only way to move things out of quadrant 4 if the word ‘know’ is to have meaning.

      “What is before 700nm and what is after 400nm?
      Infrared and ultraviolet.

      ” The waves possibly go in either direction infinitely, right?”

      Wrong. What does a wavelength of 0 nanometers mean?

      Your ‘comment’ is nothing more than the half-baked ramblings of an uneducated twit with delusions of relevancy.

    2. Dave says:

      Filosoph, medical students are now routinely told, sometimes on the first day of training, that much of what they learn will eventually turn out to be wrong as more knowledge comes in. As far as 30 years of proof, I don’t know where that came from. 30 years ago the CAST trial changed the prescribing of antiarrhythmics overnight. Generally, though, if one study comes out showing something, cautious physicians will wait for a second confirmatory study to arrive before changing therapy. Otherwise you run down dangerous blind alleys, like doing bone marrow transplants on women with breast cancer, giving beta blockers to everyone before surgery, overly tightly controlling glucoses in ICU settings, et etc etc. Could you please give an example of something that took thirty years to change after proof of efficacy occurred?

      1. Andrey Pavlov says:

        Filosoph, medical students are now routinely told, sometimes on the first day of training, that much of what they learn will eventually turn out to be wrong as more knowledge comes in.

        This is true And also misleading to the uninitiated when stated so overly simplistically. It is true that many guidelines, some understandings of disease pathology, standard of care treatments, etc will change. The basic fundamentals will not.

        Which is why when I was in med school I focused very hard on learning those fundamentals and whenever we were tested on guidelines I more or less just glanced over it to try and snag a point or two on the exam. The idea of learning the current vaccine schedule or the current Pap smear or mammography guidelines by rote is simply asinine.

        overly tightly controlling glucoses in ICU settings, et etc etc

        This is not something a med student should learn in the first 2 years. And if often not something a med student learns in the 2nd two years (unless they are like me and spent 5 months in the ICU because that is my specific interest). But yes, that is an example of what will change. IMHO we should be teaching a lot more of the fundamentals and things that won’t change (or at least minimally so) in med school, particularly in the pre-clinical years.

        The problem is that I have colleagues and classmates who take that to mean that everything is subject to, and likely to, revision. The mammography guidelines will change. The fundamentals of physiology and biochemistry… not so much. I even had a classmate chastise me for demonstrating people to be wrong by saying, “Come on Andrey! Don’t you think that in 300 years everything we know in science will be completely different?” Mouth agape was my initial response.

        I’ve also had attendings tell me that they use nothing from their first two years of med school in their current practice (a corollary to the adage you brought up). That also strikes me as strange. The basics of respiratory physiology and drug pharmacokinetics are not used anymore? Then what is the point of med school at all? Obviously they don’t really mean that, but their lack of nuance in saying so also leads some to think that all this “science” stuff in med school is getting in the way of the “art” of medicine, which is where the “practice” truly is.

        So my point is, that while it is not an untrue statement, it is also not strictly true and prone to misinterpretation to negative consequences.

        1. Calli Arcale says:

          “Come on Andrey! Don’t you think that in 300 years everything we know in science will be completely different?”

          Well of course. I mean, we did eventually work out that Galileo was completely wrong about those four moons orbiting Jupiter, right? And of course also wrong that the speed of a falling object is independent of its mass. Josef Lagrange worked out about libration points in 1772, which means we’ve only got another sixty years before we can’t use the L points for our solar satellites anymore.

          :-P

          1. Andrey Pavlov says:

            Josef Lagrange worked out about libration points in 1772, which means we’ve only got another sixty years before we can’t use the L points for our solar satellites anymore.

            Oh you! Asimov actually has a really great quote about that, from The Relativity of Wrong:

            In short, my English Lit friend, living in a mental world of absolute rights and wrongs, may be imagining that because all theories are wrong, the earth may be thought spherical now, but cubical next century, and a hollow icosahedron the next, and a doughnut shape the one after.

            What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.

            *and yes, I know you weren’t serious.

            1. Windriven says:

              Great quote, Andrey. I’ve not encountered it before.

              1. Andrey Pavlov says:

                Asimov is one of my favorite writers of all time. I have read every book and most every essay he has written.

                I highly suggest reading the full essay from which the quote comes. It puts an interesting perspective on the idea that the world being flat is actually not so wrong as we tend to currently believe it to be.

              2. Windriven says:

                @Andrey

                Just read it. Brilliant – like most of Asimov’s work.

              3. Andrey Pavlov says:

                @windriven:

                Indeed. I had managed to “forget” about that essay for probably a couple of years until Calli Arcale’s comment spurred it in my mind last night. I’ve since re-read it about 3 or 4 times. I definitely intend to use that example in future conversations.

                I feel like Asimov should be required reading for all school children. But then again, that can be said of a great many excellent writers and it is undoubtedly my bias towards him that makes me feel that way. As a child I read every single of one his books. The Robots of Dawn series was my favorite, as was The Fantastic Voyage. I actually have the 1966 movie and re-watch it periodically. I’ve given my nephews a couple of his books as Christmas presents, hoping to provide them a spark of interest.

                If you haven’t read it, his short story The Last Question from 1956 is also excellent. A good little story that becomes truly great in the very last three sentences.

              4. Windriven says:

                “I feel like Asimov should be required reading for all school children.”

                I expect we’d find considerable self-selection among those who read Asimov in their youth. I wonder if there are any bright, science-minded people who didn’t manage to stumble over his work?

                I absolutely love The Last Question. In my mind it is among his best works. It still brings a shiver to me when I tell the story to those who’ve never read it.

            2. Andrey Pavlov says:

              I expect we’d find considerable self-selection among those who read Asimov in their youth. I wonder if there are any bright, science-minded people who didn’t manage to stumble over his work?

              I suppose so. But then again I also read a lot as a child. Being the socially awkward, obese, nerdy, foreigner sort of made books my only friends until high school. My record was reading a book a day for an entire summer break.

              Arthur C. Clarke was another of my favorites.

              I absolutely love The Last Question. In my mind it is among his best works. It still brings a shiver to me when I tell the story to those who’ve never read it.

              Quite. The funny thing is that this story is still more plausible than the current prevailing (and any past) religious mythologies.

    3. Sawyer says:

      Regarding the “30 years” rule:

      I’ve said it many times before, but critics of modern medicine would be taken a lot more seriously if they could get their damn numbers right. Looking back over the last century of discoveries, you can find numerous examples of ideas that took a generation to accept, but you can also find lightning-fast adoption of many discoveries. I am continuously in awe of how quickly progress was made to understand the underlying mechanisms of HIV. How long did that take? Five years, maybe ten? The only people that resisted those discoveries for 30 years now reside in the crackpot category, not the mainstream scientist/doctor category. Once there was high-quality evidence that smoking causes lung cancer, how long did it take for oncologists to start publicizing the dangers of tobacco? Despite what RJ Reynolds or Philip Morris would have you believe, it did not take 30 years to develop a consensus.

      I would guess the real average of adoption time for significant discoveries in medicine is 15-20 years, which is honestly what it should be. Think of all the terrible policies that would be enacted if we tried to desperately cut that number in half.

    4. Harriet Hall says:

      The “30 year rule” is demonstrably wrong.
      The scientific process has been remarkably successful in finding out things we don’t know that we don’t know.
      While we wait to learn what things we don’t know, we provisionally accept the most current conclusions of science; is there any better approach? I don’t think so!

    5. Calli Arcale says:

      Out of curiosity, Filosoph, do you know what “albeit” means? You don’t seem to be using the word correctly, or at least, it doesn’t seem to make sense in your post. Perhaps this is because you aren’t punctuating properly either, which would lead me to place it in a different part of the sentence when parsing.

      In any case, I think you misunderstand what science is. You seem to regard it as a belief system, or as a set of facts taught as doctrine. It isn’t. It’s a methodology precisely designed around the fact that we do not know everything, nor even know the limits of our knowledge, and even less any possible limits to knowledge itself. Science is not “the methodology of relevance and validity”. It is a a systematic method of testing propositions, and it is brutal. It is also constrained; if a proposition exists in a domain where it is not possible to test, science can offer no judgment on the proposition and must be clear on that point. For instance, science cannot, at present, tell us whether or not there is a god. Fifty-one years ago, it also could not tell us whether or not black holes existed; the most it could do is say that according to the math, they were plausible. We are fast approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of Cygnus X-1, however, the first object discovered that fit the predictions and therefore permitted testing of them.

      In any case, you argue for a more “holistic” approach. It’s not entirely clear to me what that approach would be, but it sounds like one which prefers acceptance to dismissal. That would not help move us out of Quandrant 4 that you describe. How can you move out of Quandrant 4 if you merely accept propositions without examining them? You’ll never know if what you have accepted is true. And history shows that far more wrong propositions are made than right ones. I don’t think your approach will have the results you expect. Rather than leading us forward into innovation, your approach will take us down countless blind alleyways, and what’s worse, we may never realize we’ve hit a dead end.

      Science isn’t always pleasant, because it has a nasty habit of telling us when we’re wrong. You talk of ego, but in fact to do science properly you need the humility to expect that you are wrong from time to time, probably even *most* of the time. A “holistic” approach will not get away from that. Now, I am in favor of open-mindedness. Any proposition should be examined fairly on its merits. That won’t always come away with the proposition looking good, and you have to accept that if you want to take the moral high ground with respect to ego.

  14. Lizzy says:

    Off topic a bit but I was wondering if SBM has any articles regarding the shampoos used to treat lice?
    I am about to have a heart attack if one more person says that they won’t use lice medicine and would prefer to use olive oil,mayonaise, essential oils, etc to treat their kids lice….
    Then send their kids back to school with untreated/ poorly treated hair. Then wonder why kids keep spreading it around.

    Is there any reason for parents to be paranoid about RID, NIX or other over the counter lice treatments?

    MY kids have not/never have contracted lice. But parents in the local school system keep saying they won’t treat their kids with that “toxic” lice shampoo stuff because “Who knows how it effects kids” etc and I am looking all over SBM for something refuting these claims that lice shampoo is somehow extremely dangerous. They make claims such as its neurotoxin, it can cause seizures, it can seep into the blood stream etc etc.

    1. CHotel says:

      Haven’t done OTC stuff since second year of Pharmacy school (hospital employee now) so my memory is a little sketchy. Lindane shampoo is a neurotoxin and there have been case reports of it causing seizures in children who accidentally ingest it, but I’ve not heard of that happening following normal application. I’m not sure of the legal status of right now though, if it even is OTC or not anymore, as some states were trying to get rid of it. I believe it is still OTC in Canada though.

      Nix and other pyrethroid based treatments are also neurotoxins, but only to insects. Very low toxicity in humans, even with ingestion they get inactivated by your body rather easily.

      1. n brownlee says:

        Lindane is no longer OTC for lice- I think mostly because it’s way, way too easy to misuse and overuse it. Stll prescribable, if the doctor thinks the parent can handle it – it works much faster and better than pyrethroids. Probably still in use for animals- cattle especially need regular applications of lice killer.

      2. mouse says:

        My mom was a elementary school principle. They periodically had to inform parents about lice in the student population and send home children/information.

        I remember her telling me about the one bad episode they had. A parent didn’t follow the package directions on the product she was using. Instead of applying and rinsing after the prescribed time (usually a few minutes), the parent applied the product (not sure if it was Nix and another OTC) and put a shower cap on the child and sent her to bed. By the morning the child was very, very ill and had to be hospitalized. This was a long time ago, though. They may be using different formulas now.

        I’m glad that Harriet Hall might do an piece on this. I suspect some products are useful, but they need to be handled with care. They get a bad reputation because some people don’t follow directions and bad things happen.

    2. Harriet Hall says:

      I will volunteer to take that subject on in my next post. Good idea!

      1. CHotel says:

        Welp, now I especially hope that my memory served me well! Looking forward to this.

      2. Lizzy says:

        That’d be appreciated. I hear so much about people using so many weird remedies. I’ve heard of mayonaise helping to loosen lice nits but I’ve heard it can be ineffective if you are trying to kill the adult lice. And someone said they aren’t using Nix they wanna use tea tree oil, vinegar, whiskey, rubbing alcohol, essential oils specifically from do terra (yuck) some stuff from hylands,

        And it all sounds like other homeopaths and “Home” remedies that are usually ineffective. I could be wrong. I just think “kill the bugs and stop playing games nobody else wants your problems.”

        1. Kiiri says:

          As a PH Epi, who used to routinely get calls about lice, most of the home remedies don’t work. Lindane can be toxic, but is prescription only. The OTC pyrethroids are fairly safe used correctly. All that being said, it is possible to get rid of lice without using insecticide but very (VERY) few parents are willing to put in the time and effort to meticulously (and I do mean meticulously) comb their child’s hair every night removing live lice and as many nits as possible for up to several weeks. Most would rather do the shampoo, a pretty thorough nit comb, and a wash of linens rather than put in that much elbow grease. My interactions with parents were with angry parents who were outraged their precious flower came home with lice. Most wanted to blame other parents/children for spreading them in the school. We are trying to remove the stigma surrounding lice and also to repeal no nit policies in schools that exclude children unnecessarily. My two cents. If my small child has lice, I would treat him with OTC, nit comb, wash linens, and repeat if necessary.

  15. Roadstergal says:

    I’m always looking for fun lay-oriented science books for my own bath reading and to share with friends, so I’ll have to check this one out.

  16. stanmrak says:

    “The scientific process has been remarkably successful in finding out things we don’t know that we don’t know.”

    How could you possibly measure this since we don’t know how much we still don’t know. Maybe we’ve only successfully found out 1%.

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      You can’t measure how much we still don’t know, but you can find plenty of cases where science has found out things we didn’t know that we didn’t know. And there are no instances of any method other than science accomplishing that.

    2. Andrey Pavlov says:

      How could you possibly measure this since we don’t know how much we still don’t know. Maybe we’ve only successfully found out 1%.

      Because it is a comparison to other purported ways of finding out things we don’t know and don’t know we don’t know. Not to the entire corpus of what could be known. It could be incredibly weak in that regard, but it is undoubtedly by far the strongest means we have ever devised. And all other “ways of knowing” have been demonstrated to have essentially zero utility in that regard, being no better (and often much worse) than random guesses.

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